Bias and balance in Aussie Catholic news

Anti-catholic bias in the press is not new. But I do wonder if fifteen years of abuse scandals has shifted the framework for reporting on the Roman Catholic Church.The default position in the press is that the Catholic Church is guilty as charged -- no matter the charge. I see this in the reporting on the controversy in Australia over the dismissal of a progressive bishop.  In May Bishop Bill Morris of Toowoomba left office five years ahead of schedule. He had been subject to an extended investigation by the Vatican and had been criticized for his progressive views -- including allowing women to be ordained to the priesthood. The assumptions and inferences that lie behind the reporting appear to be driven by forces outside the story.

Newspaper writing is a craft. Good journalists bring to their work specialized knowledge of a subject and a command of prose styling. Writers improve with time and a few become masters in the art, while most achieve a workmanlike competence. Some should pack it in and explore new career options where leaden prose is a virtue. Politics? Insurance?

Religion reporting in the Melbourne newspaper, The Age, is just about the best there is in Australia and its chief religion reporter is among the masters of the craft. I've been reading the work of Barney Zwartz for many years and like what I see. He has a combines a lightness of touch with a wide knowledge of the subject.

However, there are times when narrative skill and professional knowledge are not enough to produce a good story. I want to look at a recent article entitled "Pope 'wrong' in sacking Queensland bishop" on the controversy surrounding Bishop Morris -- and ask if you see the problem I see.

The story has a great opening:

The Pope acted against natural justice and the Catholic Church's own canon law when he sacked Bill Morris as Bishop of Toowoomba last May, two expert independent reports have found.

Queensland Supreme Court judge W.J. Carter found that Bishop Morris was denied procedural fairness and natural justice, and that his treatment was ''offensive'' to the requirements of both civil and canon (church) law. He wrote about one unsigned Vatican letter to the bishop that ''one could not imagine a more striking case of a denial of natural justice''.

His conclusion was endorsed by a leading Australian canon lawyer, Melbourne's Father Ian Waters, whose report was made public last week.

He found that Pope Benedict breached canon law and exceeded his authority in removing Bishop Morris without finding him guilty of apostasy, heresy or schism and without following the judicial procedures canon law requires.

This is good stuff. Crisply written -- it grabs the reader's attention and pulls him into the story. The article summarizes the findings of these experts and recounts the dismissal by the pope of Bishop Morris last May. The story closes with the information that the diocese backed its bishop and was distressed by the Vatican's actions.

So what's the problem with the article? Balance.

Let me say up front that I am not saying the article should have given equal time or space to the Catholic church to defend its decision to remove Bishop Morris. The article is not about his removal, but about an independent report that criticizes his removal. Given the limitations of space in most broadsheets there is often little room for an extended treatment of the issues or background. And, if my experience is a guide, churches are slow to respond to questions.

However, I would have liked to have seen some response from the institutional church -- either a spokesman or an expert voice -- about the claims of unfair treatment made in the report. Barring that perhaps a line or two from a canon lawyer who could speak to the general issue of due process in ecclesiastical proceedings. A response to the firing from the church was not necessary in this story, a response to the report was.

As an aside, in the specialist press that rule does not always hold true because they will devote several articles to a story. Story A is the event. Story B the reaction. Story C the response ... and so forth.

The arc of the story, its tone and trajectory, suggests an anti-Vatican bias in this story. While we are told in the first paragraph the report was prepared by two independent investigators, it is not until paragraph 5, out of 8, that we learn these independent investigators were commissioned by the dismissed bishop's friends.

An independent investigator could have been commissioned by the church to review its procedures. We have seen this in some of the abuse cases in the U.S. for example. However, an independent investigator commissioned by the former bishop's supporters casts a different light on the story. It does not nullify or lessen the importance of their findings -- but it does call for the reader to place these findings in perspective.

By waiting until after the beating the church is given by the experts is over, the statement "Both reports were commissioned by Bishop Morris' supporters in Toowoomba" comes too late in the narrative. It is unfair.

In sum, my concerns are not over the story under consideration -- whether Bishop Morris was unfairly sacked is beside point. My concern is with how this was packaged by The Age. The clever language coupled with the manipulation of the plot line fails the reader who is seeking the truth.

Is this deliberate Catholic bashing? Could the sub-editor have cut out a few paragraphs giving the church's side of the story so as to fit the article into the page? Might the church not have returned phone calls or ignored the reporter--making it culpable in the way the story was reported? Are we hearing echoes of the Catholic Church's handling of its abuse cases in the shaping of this narrative about unfair dismissal? What's going on here?

What say you GetReligion readers?

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